Ah, the humble bra. An everyday essential for women across the globe and throughout history, the bra has taken many forms since its creation, from metal breastplates to unsupportive mesh fabric. Rachel England finds out more.

Backless, plunge, crossover, push-up, strapless, under-wired – the range of styles available to underwear shoppers these days is phenomenal. Brightly lit lingerie stores house scores of rails bursting with chiffon, ribbon, rich colours and promises of fullness and uplift, but ladies haven’t always been so spoilt for choice when it comes to giving their chests the attention they deserve.

At Sweden’s oldest Viking settlement, Birka, archaeologists have found evidence which suggests women wore rudimentary bras made of colourful fabrics underneath their metal breastplates, which were designed to give support, as well as protection.

However, these were banned by Christians who deemed the objectification of women’s bodies a ‘Pagan’ practice, and the idea of garments designed solely to support breasts remained relatively unexplored until the beginning of the 20th century, when in 1907 the word ‘bra’ was first used in American Vogue.

caressecrosbyUntil around this time, bras were known as ‘bust bodices’ and were made of thin mesh, offering virtually no support whatsoever.

This changed in 1914 when Mary-Phelps Jacobs patented a design closer to the kind of bra we know today, consisting of two silk handkerchiefs and ribbons for straps. However, patented under the name ‘Caresse Crosby’, her idea gained little or no interest and she sold the patent to Warners for $1500.

Quite a faux pas she made there, because a year later The Lady magazine named bras as ‘essential wear’, and shortly afterwards Warners had developed the idea into a dynamic $15million industry; no longer were bras coyly sized as small, medium or large, but breasts were measured in inches, and in 1935 Warners introduced cup sizes (although this didn’t take off in Britain until the Fifties).

concial-braThe war and rationing put bra developments on the back burner, and women had no choice but to get thrifty with their underwear.

Paper patterns for bras made out of old silk parachute material and wedding gowns were popular with ladies wanting to avoid utility bras, which were made of minimal fabric, basic cotton and had the utility mark stamped all over them – a far cry from the glamour of the Fifties, which saw film stars like Lana Turner and Jane Russell pioneering the pointed, conical bra (a la Eighties Madonna).

As much uplift as possible is what women wanted, in many cases up to their chins, and the advent of nylon made these hoisting mechanisms lighter, more comfortable and easier to care for.

no-bra-braBy the time the Sixties rolled round, brands like Berlei, Lovable, Playtex and perennial British favourite St. Michael (under Marks & Spencer) were household names, and elasticated technology meant bras kept their shape for longer and offered optimum support.

Contrary to popular belief, women did not run riot through the streets burning their bras, but it was a time for liberation, especially where breasts were concerned.

For a long time many women believed wearing a bra at night would help maintain a pert bust, but this practice was widely abandoned. Similarly, as attitudes changed, smaller-chested women began forgoing bras at all, or opted for Rudi Gernreich’s ‘no bra bra’ creation, a bra made of delicate netting, offering light support, which eventually paved the way for the body stocking (a concept we can now thank for the miracle knickers we use to disguises our less appealing lumpy bits).

wonderbraBut in 1968 came an invention which would revolutionise bras and breasts forever: the Wonderbra. Billboards brandishing the famed Wonderbra girl reportedly caused car accidents, such was the bra’s ability to lift and wow.

Women everywhere longed for the amazing cleavage only the Wonderbra could create. Initially only catering for women up to a size 36C, those who tipped the cup scales would buy one regardless and use a clasp extender to squeeze into it.

The Wonderbra has been an underwear staple ever since its conception, and despite trends throughout the Seventies and Eighties for babydolls, teddies and camisoles, it’s the Gossard Original that women have traditionally looked to for killer cleavage.


One Response

  1. Megan S.

    I love those conical bras and have quite a few, including a strapless one with so much wire it stands up on its own.